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George Washington

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Curtain Call, Death, Legacy

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Study Questions

Was Washington a self-made man or a man of privilege? Justify your answer.

Washington came from a privileged background, but he could hardly have achieved all that he did without good luck, bravery, and hard work. His origin as the son of a Virginia planter put him near the top of his society: beneath him were poor farmers, merchants, and a vast population of slaves. Above him were only a few, still more wealthy planers. Yet these few planters held almost all power in society, and as the third son of a relatively unimportant planter, Washington had little hope of ever sharing their power. His first and most important opportunity–a commission in the Virginia militia–resulted from his friendship with the powerful Fairfaxes. In this sense he was privileged. However, it is unlikely the Fairfaxes would have noticed him were it not for his ambition and intelligence. It is also unlikely that he would have achieved fame had he not been willing to take on the dangerous and difficult mission against the French in 1754. Thus, while Washington's background was privileged enough to make it possible for him to become powerful, it did not make it likely. That he did become powerful was the result of his own effort.

What were Washington's reasons for supporting the movement for independence?

Washington had personal, economic, and political reasons to support the movement. In all three cases, Washington had begun his life believing in and benefiting from the British colonial society of Virginia. Yet his personal ambitions were repeatedly frustrated by British discrimination against Americans. This was particularly true of his attempt to secure a commission in the British Army. He was outraged that as a colonel in the Virginia militia, he could be ordered around by any officer in the British Army. The army's refusal to take American soldiers seriously personally offended him. His economic reasons related to his role as a planter. Though he was powerful within Virginia society, he was constantly in debt or nearly in debt to the London-based merchants who bought his tobacco and sold him goods. British laws put tobacco producers at a disadvantage and left them continually short of cash; this system was unfair in Washington's eyes, and he came to vigorously oppose it in the 1760s. His political reasons for supporting independence were related to his personal and economic reasons. While many Americans saw themselves simply as British subjects living outside of Britain, Washington felt that America was developing its own identity, one that revolved around ideas of liberty, equality, and unity. British policy tended to ignore or even insult this identity, using the American colonies largely as a way to make money. Washington believed, in sum, that neither he, nor his fellow planters–nor America as a whole–would achieve their goals until they were independent of Britain.

Was Washington a better military leader or political leader? Justify your answer.

Washington was an excellent military and political leader, though on balance he was probably a better political leader. His early military career is spotty at best; his loss to the French at Fort Necessity was tragic and unnecessary. Under Braddock he performed bravely but with little regard to strategy. Under Forbes he showed a lack of understanding for military strategy. Though he improved dramatically during the Revolutionary War, his improvement had as much to do with a better grasp of politics than of strategy. His greatest acts as commander of the Continental Army were essentially political acts: keeping the Congress in support of the war, keeping his soldiers loyal, impressing the French and British with the resolve of his troops. Arguably his greatest military triumph was his resignation, which was itself a political act. While president he angered many Americans and lost the support of many former allies. Yet by keeping America neutral in the war between France and Britain, in supporting a system of public finance, and in seeking to open the western frontier to settlement, he succeeded in preserving and expanding the new nation. Politics never brought him the fame or honor that military service did, but it was the more difficult of the two jobs, and he handled it almost flawlessly.

Suggested Essay Topics

When Washington resigned his command of the Continental Army, Jefferson said: "The moderation and virtue of one man probably prevented this Revolution from being closed by a subversion of the liberty it was intended to establish." Yet when Washington became president, Jefferson believed he was too conservative. Did Washington ultimately preserve or limit the spread of liberty in America?

How did Washington's vision of America differ from that of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson?

Why do you think there are no political leaders like Washington today? Be sure to support your argument with historical facts.

Of the acts for which Washington is considered a hero–leading the army in the Revolutionary War, resigning his command after the war, leading the nation as president, freeing his slaves upon his death, and so on–which do think is the most important? Why?

Which did Washington value more, stability or democracy? Justify your answer.

Later in life Washington admitted that if the North and South should ever split in two he would join the North. Why do you think he said this? Support your answer with evidence from his life.

Discuss Washington's notion of duty. Is it obsolete?

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